how does alcohol affect mental health

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A lot of people don’t think alcohol is a drug – but it’s the most widely used and easily accessible drug in Australia.

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Alcohol is the most commonly used legal drug in Australia. It’s a depressant drug which means that it slows down the brain.

It’s normal to want to be part of a group and often drinking can be a big part of socialising. But if you don’t want to drink, or have one more, you shouldn’t have to.

Sometimes the pressure to drink comes from friends and family. But choosing to drink alcohol should be on your terms, because there’s no ‘safe way’ to use alcohol.

If you choose to drink, it's important to drink as safely as possible.


What does it do? 

As a general rule, alcohol can make you feel more confident and relaxed, slow down your reflexes and affect your balance and coordination.

Drinking too much can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. In some cases, people can even pass out and may not remember what happened. They may do risky things that they wouldn’t do while sober.

How alcohol makes you feel depends on lots of things, like:

  • how much you weigh

  • how healthy you are

  • how much you drink

  • the strength of the drink 

  • how regularly you drink

  • what kind of mood you’re in when you drink

  • who you’re drinking with.

The effects of alcohol can last for hours, even over night, especially if you have drunk a lot. When it wears off you may feel tired, thirsty, headachy and sick. This usually won’t last longer than a day.

What is the connection between alcohol and mental health and wellbeing?

Alcohol can have a big impact on our mental health. Because alcohol is a depressant, it slows your body down and changes the chemical makeup in your brain. This has many effects. It can alter:

  • mood

  • energy levels

  • sleeping patterns

  • concentration

  • memory and many other things.

Alcohol can also reduce inhibitions and impact decision-making. This can lead to us making decisions that we wouldn't normally make sober. It's also linked with:

  • increases in risky behaviour

  • increases in aggression

  • unsafe sex practices 

  • self harm and suicide in people who may already be going through a tough time

  • binge drinking (drinking a lot in one session). 

Frequent or heavy alcohol use can increase these effects, especially the impact on mood, and the ability to cope with tough times.

People who are experiencing a mental health difficulty may use alcohol to try and manage tough times, or lift their mood. This might feel helpful in the short term however it can end up making things much harder to handle in the long run.

Alcohol and your physical health

Alcohol can impact on your physical health in a number of ways.

Short term effects include:

  • difficulty sleeping

  • lower immunity

  • trouble concentrating

  • difficulty getting motivated.

 Long term alcohol use can cause additional problems like:

  • high blood pressure

  • heart disease

  • brain damage

  • liver disease as well as different kinds of cancers.

If you’re pregnant, drinking alcohol can lead to serious health problems for you and your baby.

Safer drinking tips

If you’re going to drink alcohol, safer tips for you and your friends include: 

  • setting a limit and stick to it (there are Apps that can help you)  

  • pre-arranging how you’ll get home 

  • avoiding drinking alone 

  • eating before and while you’re drinking 

  • pacing yourself – drink water between alcoholic drinks 

  • avoiding rounds/shouts 

  • avoiding mixing alcohol with other drugs (prescription or illegal) 

  • looking out for each other – don’t leave anyone alone. 

Drink spiking: stay safer by always keeping an eye on your drink and not accepting any pre-opened drinks. 

Ways to Cut Back on Alcohol and Other Drugs

What happens if I stop drinking?

There are many benefits that can come from reducing or cutting out alcohol use. These may include:

  • more energy

  • better sleep

  • saving money

  • better physical health

  • improved mood

  • improved engagement with work and study

  •  improved relationships. 

Some of these benefits you might notice within a couple of days, whereas others can have a bigger impact the longer you reduce your use.

It can be tricky giving up drinking if you’ve been doing it for a long time, because your body has to get used to going without it. If you’re dependent on alcohol and you suddenly stop drinking, you might get withdrawal symptoms including sweating, feeling sick, anxiety, irritability, problems sleeping, hallucinations, tremors (e.g. shaking hands) and even seizures.

Because of this, it’s a good idea to have a chat to a general practitioner (GP) to discuss the safest way of cutting back on your drinking.


Other useful resources 

The Australian Drug Foundation 


The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

 Last reviewed 29 March 2022

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